Happy almost-March, friends!
This was just one of those weekends in Notre Dame sports world. For two different teams, things had to go a very specific way to get some positive outcomes that looked like a longshot as recently as a week ago — and then the sports gods gifted us with exactly those outcomes. Friday through Sunday served as a nice place-setter for what figures to be a heck of a next few weeks.
Let’s start with the newly-minted ACC regular season champs, an accolade the Irish used to win routinely and one it feels so so good to recapture in gritty, dramatic fashion. As things stood at the start of the week, Notre Dame was in a tie for first with Duke, which really was a de facto second place given Duke’s victory over the Irish. To pull off an outright conference title, and an accompanying first seed in the ACC Tournament next weekend, Notre Dame both needed Duke to lose a game and to win out — no small task with a trip to Louisville, where Notre Dame hadn’t won in seven years, looming to close things out.
Thursday night’s games kept things status quo, with the Irish handling Georgia Tech on Senior Night and Duke pulling away from NC State. Each team’s major conference rival stood waiting in the finale — North Carolina for Duke, and the second Irish-Cardinals matchup in ten days, the last one capped by Olivia Miles’s OT Arike*.
*I tweeted about this but I’ll throw it on the blog too — in the official Emergency Caffeine Manual of Style, a buzzer beater shall always be referred to as an Arike.
In Durham, the contest looked like it was a defensive slog, in true Duke fashion. The Blue Devils mustered just slightly more offense and looked like they were about to lock up the overall #1 seed. Duke faded down the stretch, though, and the Heels were able to pull ahead in the fourth and keep it that way. The matchup registered a series low for total points scored, and North Carolina needed to just slightly outpace Duke to open the door for Notre Dame.
How were things going in Louisville, though? Ah, not great Bob. After a competitive quarter and a half, disaster struck the Irish at the worst possible time. Olivia Miles, as dynamic a player as you can find and the Irish engine, landed awkwardly on her right knee and went to the floor in pain. Just barely a month removed from Dara Mabrey’s very similar looking career-ending injury, it was hard not to immediately assume the worst. Miles did not return. The Cardinals were in no mood for sympathy, though, and pushed an existing run into a nine-point halftime lead. Conference title in the balance.
Put up or shut up time.
Niele Ivey has done many impressive things in her first three years as head women’s basketball coach — taking over during a pandemic, being the only ACC team to beat NC State last year, nuking a higher-seeded Oklahoma on their home court to make the Sweet Sixteen (while setting a program record for points in an NCAA Tournament game), delivering the program its first comfortable win over UConn in…???. But winning Sunday might be her best coaching job to date. Things looked, uh, I believe the polite term is dire, at the half and the Irish came out of the locker room on a mission. Niele knew exactly the right adjustments to make and the right buttons to hit to orchestrate a comeback, and her team never blinked despite having every reason too. In a game it felt like the refs, the crowd, and the injury gods were all against Notre Dame, Ivey’s team spat in the face of the odds.
That’s not to give Niele sole credit for the victory, though. As the head woman herself said, “that was all God and Sonia Citron.” Citron played out of her mind, turning in the best performance of her college career to date, stepping up into the point guard role and making smart play after smart play. All Sonia did was pop off for 17 second-half points while defending Louisville’s best player for most of the game. This rainbow three late in the shot clock was an absolute dagger to get the Irish ahead by two possessions. In putting the team on her back, Citron recorded a season-high scoring total not just for herself, but the whole team, reminding the world ND has two All-American caliber guards on the roster. And she did it all shooting over 50% from the field.
Everyone had critical moments in the comeback. Cass Prosper found a needed shooting touch both at the rim and with her jumper, and most critically at the line for the game-sealing free throws with just six seconds to play. (Free throw shooting remains a massive weakness for this team, but we’ll deal with that later.) KK Bransford showed the strength of her mid-range game, somehow shooting even more efficiently than Sonia, and threw in a few dimes in tribute to Miles. Prosper, Watson, Ebo, and Bransford all defended with four fouls down the stretch and still held the Cardinals to 27% shooting in the fourth quarter. And of course, Maddy Westbeld, man — not exactly a stat-stuffing game for her, but did so many smart things defensively to lock down Louisville at key stretches. (Friendly reminder that aside from Lauren Ebo, every player getting major minutes now has at least two seasons of eligibility left.) At the risk of sounding like I’m playing sportswriter-cliché bingo, this was a gritty, total team win that displayed the team’s mental toughness. And it sets them up very well for postseason play.
In capturing the #1 seed, though, the Irish have found themselves in a bit of a tough draw. A possible quarterfinal match with NC State looms first up, followed by a likely third matchup in three weeks with the Cardinals should they advance. As ND’s learned the hard way, it’s really tough to beat the same team three times in a season. Even a relatively early loss in Greensboro shouldn’t be fatal to Irish hopes, though you would like to see them at least make the title game just to shore up that high seed. But hey — while we’re winning conference titles, why not go for two?
Obviously, though, the far bigger concern going forward is the status of Olivia Miles. It certainly was an encouraging sign to see Miles active, standing, and mobile during the second half and (especially) postgame. The injury looked rough, though, and Miles was in clear pain — though at least some of it seemed to be frustration at not being able to be out on the court. We’ll wait for an update with bated breath.
I’m not entirely sure Miles should even play in Greensboro, if she can. What matters far more than a run through the ACC Tournament is that she is as close to 100% as possible for the NCAA Tournament, which is fortunately three weeks away. The last thing we need to for Liv to rush back too soon and aggravate her injury, keeping her out when it’s win-or-season’s-over time. Plus, the team just showed they can win without her on the floor — I’m sure literally everyone vastly prefers to play with Miles, but you could look at the ACC Tourney as some sort of extended roster experiment/confidence building exercise for the rest of the team. In any case, priority A, B, and C is for Miles to be as healthy as possible.
No matter what happens in the Big Dance, though, let’s all take a moment to appreciate this return to the ACC mountaintop. In three years, Niele Ivey has gotten this program right back where it belongs — and her team showed tremendous poise and determination in getting there. What a ride. Love this team.
Things also broke just right for a much-maligned Irish hockey team to miraculously pull off a home-ice advantage for the Big Ten quarterfinals. Not only needing to wrangle a big series against archrival M***igan, but needing some help from the Wisconsin Badgers against Penn State, the road looked rocky — home ice seemed like a pipe dream after the Irish were swept by Michigan State in their last road series.
But the stars aligned just so, as they do once in a while. At this point basically every Irish team must, by law, win games in the most dramatic fashion possible, so of course both Chicken Bowl* games were played in overtime. (*I’m making this nickname happen, ok?) Friday night didn’t yield a winner, but some clutch goaltending from Ryan Bischel (what a year he’s having — basically kept this team alive by himself the last few months) combined with a nice shot got the Irish the extra point. Saturday went to OT as well, after Bischel yet again absorbed a skunkbear thunderstorm, but Drew Bavaro managed to sneak back a shot to win it and send the Irish to a five-point weekend.
And every one of those points was needed. Combined with the Badgers managing a split against the Nittany Lions, it was just enough for the Irish to pull into the top half of the rankings — by a single point. If the Irish hadn’t’ve won the shoot-out Friday, they’d be traveling this weekend.
It’s still a really steep climb for the Irish to skate their way into the NCAA Tournament, though. A win over MSU next weekend will reward Notre Dame with a trip to Minneapolis and a date with a buzzsaw of a Minnesota squad that has blasted their way through the Big Ten. The good news is the trip to Ann Arbor gave the Irish a major boost in the Pairwise rankings; they still hover right around the cut line though, and conference tournaments would have to go their way to sneak in. A sweep over MSU would be critical; and hey, in a single game of hockey, who knows? Minnesota’s lost eight games this year, why not a ninth?
It’s almost March — let’s make some madness.
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